Friendly Coworker Changes

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about feeling ignored by a coworker:

I share an office with a woman who is 20 years younger (in her 40’s). She is usually very chatty & friendly, but recently we both were out of work for about a month. She went on a 3-week trip, and while she was gone, I broke my hip & was out for about a week longer than she. When I came back to work, I asked about her trip (she went on the same trip 2 years ago & chatted endlessly & showed pictures), and her response was a very chilly “Great,” and she walked out. Since then she continues to give me a very warm, smiley “good mornings” and “good nights” but ignores me the rest of the time. How should I handle this situation?

Signed –Ignored

Dear Ignored:

Broken hip! I’m pleased to know you are well enough to return to work.   Let’s see if I can sum up what you describe and then reply to your question: How should I handle this situation?

Upon returning to work has not been as it was before. Your coworker and you were both gone for a time, although for different reasons. Now the friendly chatty person you expected to see has been replaced by one who is distant. She has a cordial morning greeting and good night but otherwise ignores you. How do you handle this? You have four options:

  1. Be your usual chatty self—something that you tried that didn’t work
  2. Mirror her behavior—limit your talk to warm morning and evening good day and good night. This too has left you feeling ignored, but the fact is you can still do your job without the chattiness of the past. If your elect this option, you will be better able to cope with it by focusing on other things that make you feel good, such as focusing on doing exceptionally good work. Perhaps also in small ways by making your office more pleasant with green plants or by occasionally posting of a maxim.
  3. Ask her what has changed. Such a direct approach probably is best made informally and privately. Frankly acknowledging that you miss chatting and asking if you talked too much. Before you ask what has changed, you should prepare for the possibility that she has reason to feel she wants to be seen as professional and less chatty. Might it be possible that your office manager or other coworkers have expressed to her that chatty-cathy was the way she was viewed? Might the week she was back and that you still had not returned been for an experience in which she felt more professional?
  4. Engage your office manager and/or coworkers in issues related to customer service—rethinking what is the mission and purpose of your department. This would mean talk about talk that matters–what you like about your job and what might make it better? As a senior staff member, you might frankly talk with your office manager saying when you were recovering from your broken hip you thought about how you want to make each day more meaningful. And to do that you wondered if she also sometimes wished the office might be more enthused about what it was going on. If she responds positively, that might be a topic she could put on the agenda.

Possibly you will think of other ways either to cope with feeling ignored or to regain a small measure of the good relationship you had with her. Obviously, work is work and conversation is not what for what you are paid. But you are right to want your workday to be spent with some nonwork conversation. I predict that that can happen. Ife is short, and it is a shame to feel ignored. Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS—to make that good feeling happen, I tell my students it takes guts and grit. Please, after a couple of weeks, let me know if any of these thoughts make sense and what you elect to do.    –William Gorden